Surviving Mood Swings from Puberty Through Menopause
Years ago I was working for a company that kept an apartment in the city for its senior staff. If you were on deadline with a project and had to stay late, you could sleep over in town instead of catching the train back to whichever suburb you called home. I never partook of this perk myself — I was lower on the totem pole and lived close by — but several times I noticed that the guy I reported to had an overnight bag. I felt sorry for him.
"You don’t have to stick around," I finally said one night. "I can work on this deal by myself so you can spend some time with your family."
"Let me tell you a little something about my home situation," he said. "My wife has started going through menopause, and my daughter is entering puberty. So I think I’m just going to stay right here." I didn’t know what he meant then. His story haunts me now.
My wife started going through menopause a few years ago. And my daughter, while only 12, is already living the life of a teenager. She has a boyfriend, a page on MySpace.com, and an obsession with all things teen: designer jeans, lip gloss, The O.C. She is precocious in other ways as well. The other day at breakfast she mentioned that our housekeeper was mixing her underwear up with her mother’s because they had the same bra size.
"Too much information," I said as I took my coffee and fled the kitchen. Physically, it is an interesting time for both of them. My wife recently used the term sexual neutrality to describe the state of her libido.
"Neutral like Switzerland during the Second World War?" I asked.
"Something like that."
"Does that make me like Hitler?" I wondered, though it was the wrong analogy. Hitler never invaded Switzerland.
From Raging Hormones to Sexual Neutrality
I actually looked up sexual neutrality on the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals’ Web site. The condition occurs "where a woman is receptive to being sexual but does not initiate sexual activity." While it’s true that my wife does not initiate sex, it would not be accurate to say that I always find her receptive to the idea either. Maybe in the abstract. When I tried to initiate sex the other night, she told me she was looking forward to going out of town with me and enjoying sex in the privacy of a hotel room.
Meaning three full days later.
If my wife’s hormones exist in a sort of placid, uber-Switzerland, my daughter’s are raging like a civil war, rife with sectarian violence. Friends she recently cherished are dead to her now, while others banished to Siberia are suddenly sitting at the dinner table. Not our dinner table, of course; she would rather drink ink than expose her friends to her mother and father in situ. All the drama of hormonal surges and PMS are already upon us: tears at breakfast, followed (sometimes) by effusive hugs.
No explanation is offered for these mood swings, of course. That information is strictly on a need-to-know basis. And as the occupying authority (she’s giving my tank the finger after it rolls by), I just don’t need to know. My wife is Switzerland; my daughter is Iraq.
Puberty is not the same for every girl, of course; neither is menopause a one-size deal for women. Lots of women go through major life changes in addition to the hormonal upheaval. Some men all too slowly become aware that while they slept, their wives were reexamining their lives, realizing that the husband’s services were no longer required. You can chalk it up to women’s greater financial independence or a side effect of the emptying-nest syndrome, but somewhere right now a husband is awaking to find his Barcalounger in the street — with him in it.
I don’t think that my wife is experiencing that kind of midlife crisis. If she is, she isn’t telling me. She is a hardworking professional, respected in her field, and tries like most mothers to balance her work life with her family responsibilities.
True, she is suddenly hot — so hot — and pulling her clothes off in the strangest of places, but it never has anything to do with me. Now she talks about physical passion as if it was a novel she had once read but has now pretty much forgotten. ("I can’t remember: Why were we making love in the driveway? Had we lost the keys to the apartment?")
But if she is disengaged from her husband and his quaint needs, she is vexed by our daughter’s roiling passions. And if I have any purpose in this triangle, it may not be to empathize — ‘cause, really, what the hell do I know? It is to calm my wife when our daughter pushes her buttons, then slip like a courtier into my daughter’s chambers to explain, gently, why Mom is acting like such a bitch. I am a go-between for two people of the same gender who sometimes find themselves staring at each other across a vast hormonal divide. It feels sometimes as if one of them is just entering the coliseum of emotions that comes with being a woman, while the other is bidding the whole bloody circus a not-so-fond farewell.
How Men Cope in Hormonal Hell
Does any male know what to do when caught in this no-man’s-land? A father’s role in the midst of these changes is less clear than that of mother or child. And society leaves us few options. We can join fraternal organizations or hit the gym during the week, hence avoiding treacherous paths that might lead to marital infidelity. We can take up golf or gardening on weekends, watch sports or teach ourselves the guitar. But nights we are left to our own devices, which often boil down to the usual echo chambers: talk radio, Internet chats or the History Channel (aka the Hitler Channel).
You don’t hear men talk about this much, for the same reason your husband doesn’t stop and ask for directions when driving: We would rather get lost on our own. Consequently, I have no idea how many men share this experience. Men don’t sport survival wear about it ("I survived my wife’s and daughter’s hormonal hell"). They don’t form recovery groups around it. They go to ground, clam up — and sometimes get a divorce (though that is still the nuclear option).
Men hope that if we just ignore this hormonal upheaval, our wives and daughters will return to us, like in a fairy tale, after the spell has been lifted from the family. Isolation is what we fear. If my wife is Switzerland and my daughter is Iraq, am I North Korea? Like Kim Jong-Il, staying up late with my toy soldiers, choreographing Busby Berkeley-style martial spectacles while casting starlets in romantic movies no one will see but me, even as the rest of my population starves. I’m becoming like one of those crazy old guys, the kind your mother warned you about. Come to think of it, that apartment in town sounds pretty good.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2006.